Eminent film critic Roger Ebert has long made himself the target of angry gamers with his obtuse assertions about Video Games and their lowly status in the grand hierarchy of art. Ebert has in blog posts and newspaper columns declared open and proud his dismissive attitude toward games and his clear declartion that games are not, and indeed cannot, be art.
Subsequently, and rightly, Roger Ebert has been called various things by afronted gamers which boil down to two clear charges - Arrogance and Ignorance. Certainly i agree that these are two sins Ebert is guilty of in regard to his perspective on computer games. But I’m going to take a moment to take Mr Ebert to task from another angle and call him a name he may find more offensive than any of the unsavoury things he has been called by those who love the art of computer games - I charge Roger Ebert with being a Hypocrite.
How do i come to such a charge? My accusation comes from the history of cinema itself and the paradigm of theoretical thinking that is directly responsible for the modern cultural position of cinema as an artform and moreover the basis for modern film criticism.
You see, cinema itself wasn’t always considered an art. Whilst cinema has it origins at the turn of the 20th century and produced many of its great master works from the likes of chaplin, keaton, murnau and lang in the first three decades of its existance, cinema had had no true critical or scholarly status as an art until well into the second half of the century.
Cinema’s fortunes changed hoowever in the 1950’s and 60’s with a collection of film critics and filmmakers who becane collectiveky known as the French New Wave. And modern critics such as Mr Ebert owe their livlihood and profession to the tsunami the French new wave unleashed.
For the New Wave critics, and their devotees that followed (both in Europe and the US) the idea of the auteur (the director artist) and mise en scene (the recognisable style of the artist) were bound together with both being deliberate and concerted efforts to provide for cinema the academic credibility and scholarly critique other artforms had long enjoyed. In order to understand the significance of mise en scene and auteur thinking as concepts – ideas which govern much of what is understood in regard to contemporary cinema criticsm – we need to acknowledge the impetus for the assertion of cinema as an art.
Whilst we may take for granted the position of cinema as both a high and popular artform today this position is not one that was organically or easily adopted. Cinema had suffered, much as its young-art predecessors (namely still-photography) had suffered, from both benign neglect and, at times, overt dismissal of any serious artistic legitimacy. Fundamental to the disparaging attitude exerted upon cinema by the art establishment up until the1950’s and 60’s was the collaborative nature of cinema’s making, worse still its oftentimes production-line assembly process (as propagated by the Hollywood studio system) that appeared more like the seminal Model-T Ford factory than an artist’s studio. What specifically made this such an abhorrence to art was the distinct lack of an identifiable ‘author’. Without a individually identifiable author, that a work of art could be attributed to, there could be no ‘art’. More particularly without an author there could be no art critique, no critical or analytical study of the artist and their body of work. The French New Wave aimed squarely at elevating cinema as an art by specifically championing the individuality and unique voice of the identifiable cinema director as artist, what they termed the auteur, above and beyond the collaborative group of artisans.
If the New Wave critics could pin the creative choices of a cinematic work to the specific and unique vision of an individual - a Director with a tangible political, social, stylistic, cultural or aesthetic axe to grind - then they would achieve the establishment of cinema as an art by letting in the critics.
It is therefore very interesting to note that Roger Ebert has levelled this self-same argument once fought by cinema against contemporary computer gaming by asserting that games cannot be ‘Art’ since there is no identifiable ‘Artist’ or authorial control. Gaming is a collaborative artform forged between creators of different disciplines just as cinema is. But Mr Ebert asserts that Games are “inherently inferior to film and literature. There is a structural reason for that: Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control.” (Ebert, R cited in Choi, D 2005)
It would appear hypocritical for a film critic such as Ebert to mount such an argument when his very status and position as a contemporary film critic is the direct result of the French New Wave vigorously combating the extact same perspectives once levelled at cinema. Cinema spent its first 50 years deemed Not an Art because it had no identifiable Author and Ebert charges Gaming with the same failing?
The efforts of the New Wave to change the perception of cinema and have it taken seriously as an individually authored art were highly successful as Paul Watson comments:
“such a fundamentally evaluative critical method not only enabled cinema’s great works and the great film artists to be ranked alongside the great works and artists of the classical arts, but presented critics with a methodology and vocabulary for studying cinema. Armed with such a method, it was possible also for the critic to contribute to the task of winkling out traces of authorship in a range of filmmakers’ work.” (Critical approaches to Hollywood cinema: autorship, genre and stars 1996)
Cinema had to fight very hard to be taken seriously as an art and undermine the established but arbitary and inconsistent notions of the ‘artist’. Gaming is simply at the same place cinema was at in 1950, mounting the same battle, following the path trod by cinema before it. Thus I feel very confident in declaring Roger Ebert an ignornant, arrogant, hypocrite in the purest definitions of those words - he’s obviously ignorant of gaming, he is evidently arrogant about the hierarchy of cinema and entirely hypocritical by applying the same criticism of gaming that his role is as film critic was instrumental in overturning.
But the real question; is he being deliberatelty disingenuous, selectively chosing to ignore the history of his chosen art in order to disparage a different artform he evidently knows nothing about? Or Is he simply demonstarting yet further levels of ignorance, this time more disturbingly, an ignorance of the history of his own profession.
Either Mr Ebert needs a little schooling on the history of cinema or else he needs to open his mind a little.